On October 28, a pair of heritage chairs designed by Swiss architect Pierre Jeanneret for Chandigarh’s Punjab Engineering College (PEC) went under the hammer at an auction house in the UK. The chairs, marked ‘P.U.Ec./57’ and ‘P.U.Ec/52’, were sold for 6,500 pound-sterlings or around Rs 6.21 lakh.
As always, the auction of a priceless artefact, tied closely to the city’s heritage, had caught the Chandigarh UT administration unawares.
“The seat rails of the armchairs have markings of ‘P.U.Ec./57’ and ‘P.U.Ec/52’. This shows that the chairs belong to the Chandigarh Administration. For the last many years, heritage items have been illegally taken out of the city and auctioned in foreign countries,” said Ajay Jagga, advocate and member of the UT Heritage Protection Cell who has been spearheading a campaign to restore Chandigarh’s lost heritage.
The incident cast the spotlight on an old problem – of rare artefacts linked to the capital’s heritage and history being smuggled out and auctioned across the world.
According to the UT Heritage Protection Cell, countless heritage items, especially furniture designed by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret – among them, the iconic Chandigarh chair – have been stolen or taken away from Chandigarh only to resurface as they go under the hammer in auction houses abroad. Officials said that since 2009, at least 100 such items have been auctioned in the US, UK and Europe, with each artefact reportedly fetching Rs 50 crore and upwards.
Talking to The Indian Express, Adviser to the UT Administration, Dharam Pal, said that while the administration is serious about the legacy and heritage of the city, the process to bring them back to the country involves coordination with several agencies, including the Ministry of External Affairs. “Over the last few years, we have made a detailed inventory of heritage items and I believe that it has helped us preserve the artefacts. Indeed, the repeated auction of these items in other countries is a matter of concern.”
When Touchaleaume came visiting
According to an inventory made by the UT Administration in 2012, Chandigarh has 12,793 heritage items that broadly fall in 131 categories. Some of the most well-known ones include X-, Y- and Z-shaped furniture, study tables, chairs, iron manhole covers bearing an impression of the map of Chandigarh, drawings and sketches of iconic buildings, table lamps and cemented lights at Sukhna Lake.
Furniture from the Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret era continue to be used in the Punjab and Haryana High Court, the Punjab & Haryana Vidhan Sabhas, Panjab University, the UT Secretariat, DAV College, the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education & Research (PGIMER), and Punjab Raj Bhawan, among other buildings.
In 2011, the Punjab and Haryana High Court asked the UT administration to respond to a PIL that wanted the administration to intervene and stop the auction of furniture designed by Corbusier and Jeanneret. In response, the administration submitted a catalogue of around 208 ‘heritage’ items, following which detailed inventories of all the artefacts were made.
Yet, many of these artefacts continued to be smuggled out of Chandigarh, or even legally taken away at dirt-cheap rates, only to end up in auction houses where they would be sold at rates several times higher.
One of the earliest instances of Chandigarh’s heritage being smuggled out is from 1999, when Eric Touchaleaume, a dealer from France visited Chandigarh during the 50th anniversary celebrations of the city. Touchaleaume had come to Chandigarh as a part of a delegation and left after visiting several heritage buildings including Panjab University (PU), Punjab and Haryana High Court, and the Government Museum and Art Gallery in Sector 10.
Touchaleaume, however, returned to the city and met administration officials with an idea for auctioning discarded items. The administration agreed and auctioned around 100 items, which Touchaleamume is said to have bought at cheap rates and legally transported out of India.
“On subsequent visits, Touchaleamume deputed his proxies who purchased these items in an open auction. The process was to continue until reports started emerging that the furniture that was auctioned in Chandigarh – some for as low as Rs 15 each – were going under the hammer for lakhs of rupees in Paris, Germany and other countries,” a former faculty member of the Chandigarh College of Architecture told The Indian Express on condition of anonymity.
The first FIR registered in connection with the recovery of furniture designed by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret was in 2012, when the items were recovered from two godowns owned by Bhupinder Singh, a resident of Chandigarh’s Sector 18. A probe by then SDM (east) Abhishek Dev had recovered hundreds of heritage items from the godowns at Kaimbwala and Nayagon.
Following the registration of the FIR, an SIT was constituted to investigate how the items had ended up in international auction houses such as the Artcurial in Paris. The SIT, however, failed to reach any concrete conclusions Later, following an order from the Punjab and Haryana High Court, Bhupinder Singh managed to recover all the seized items from the police.
Since then, there have been several instances of heritage items being taken out of the state. At least nine cases of theft of artefacts were reported in Chandigarh between 2015 and 2022.
A larger network
In November 2020, at least 48 heritage chairs were stolen from Panjab University’s Sociology Department. While police arrested three scrap dealers and a carpenter, and recovered all the stolen chairs, they failed to get to the bottom of the plot. The team probing the role of bigger players returned empty handed from Mumbai from where the stolen chairs were scheduled to be shipped out of the country.
“It was obvious that the scrap dealers worked for big handlers in Mumbai and other major cities. Though we extensively interrogated all the people we arrested, they didn’t know much about the identity of their handlers. The phone numbers on which the local thieves communicated with their handlers were registered on fake addresses,” said a police officer who was part of the investigation.
Police officials say many of the thefts go unreported. Like in the case of one of the concrete floor lamps at Sukhna Lake, which disappeared around 10 years ago, only to be displayed at an art gallery in Paris.
In 2016, the theft of at least 16 heritage chairs and two tables from the storeroom of the Government College of Arts, Sector 10, merely two days before the visit of then French president Francois Hollande to Chandigarh, had left the administration red-faced.
Later, six scrap dealers, including two women, were arrested but on October 16 this year, all of them were acquitted after a six-year-long court trial, with the court pointing to lack of evidence and weak prosecution.
Among the many suggestions to prevent more thefts and auctioning of heritage items was for Chandigarh to start a heritage museum where some of the artefacts can be preserved.
Heritage expert and former principal of Chandigarh College of Architecture said, “Chandigarh was the first modern city in our country. Everything in the city that’s associated with Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret – buildings, statutes, furniture, old sketches, drawings and even manhole covers – is part of the heritage and is priceless. I had suggested that we conduct our own auctions. I had also suggested that we preserve some of these heritage items – other than the ones that are not in use, of course – and display them in a separate building. My suggestions were appreciated, but were neither accepted nor rejected. I am pained whenever I see our precious heritage going under the hammer in other countries.”